By Richard Clarke in Athens
Arsenal's youngsters left Athens with nothing to show for a valiant performance at Olympiacos on Wednesday night.
Having won Champions League Group H on Matchday Five, Arsène Wenger had decided to field a scratch side in Greece. He started with five teenagers - including two debutants - and the average age was 21. A figure skewed by the presence of 32-year-old Mikael Silvestre at centre back.
It was the youngest ever side fielded in the Champions League, beating the record set by Ajax six years ago.
By contrast, Olympiacos were motivated by both the point they needed to qualify for the Knockout Stages and the vocal backing of the imposing Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium.
They got the goal they required just after half-time when Leonardo charged through and drove his shot under Lukasz Fabianski. However, for much of the game, it was Arsenal who impressed.
They forced the Greek champions to play on the counter-attack in the first half. After they went behind Carlos Vela spurned a couple of chances to equalise and, at the death, the impressive Aaron Ramsey saw an effort kicked off the line.
Wenger could have asked for no better European finishing school than this. It was one of the few games in the season that Arsenal could afford to lose so the manager took advantage.
The benefits may not be apparent for a few years to come but, make no mistake, this could have been a turning point in the careers of a couple of players on show.
It was worthwhile exercise.
Wenger had pretty much named his line-up before kick-off. The defence was 50 per cent made of 18-year-old debutants - Tom Cruise and Kyle Bartley - while other youngsters such as Jack Wilshere, Fran Merida, Kerrea Gilbert and Vela and were given another run-out.
For differing reasons, Alex Song, Theo Walcott, Lukasz Fabianski and Mikael Silvestre all needed games.
There would be a temptation to call it a Carling Cup side. But Arsenal had generally fielded stronger sides than this in their ‘fourth competition' this season.
Jay Emmanuel Thomas had been named as part of the squad but, in fact, he was ineligible because he had been on loan at Blackpool at the start of the season. Therefore Arsenal only named six substitutes.
In his pre-match press conference, Wenger had mentioned that the best way to quieten the famous Olympiacos atmosphere was to play good football.
It may have been a very different side but the Frenchman's brand was stamped all over this Arsenal team in the opening stages.
They were neat, tidy and confident. But the closest they came to scoring was when Antonis Nikopolidis batted away a rising drive from Walcott.
Shortly afterwards Oscar Gonzalez set up Kostas Mitroglou to sidefoot an effort over the bar. It was a decent chance but it had been snatched on the break. Arsenal, young and fearless, were actually pushing back the Greek champions.
At the quarter-hour, the balance of play had done little to affect the volume in the stadium. The home fans were still drumming, singing, shouting and waving flags. Arsenal were booed when they were in possession.
And, as Olympiacos started to impose themselves, the volume only grew louder. In the 17th minute, Luciano Galletti floated over a corner and a shot from Avraam Papadopoulos hit Olof Mellberg.
Generally, though, Olympiacos were looking most dangerous on the break and, in the 19th minute, one such raid saw them nearly take the lead.
Mitroglou stormed down the left and picked out Galletti at the far post. The Argentinean leapt impressively but could only bounce a shot into the sidenetting. Soon after that Dudu slammed a shot over the bar.
Those chances notwithstanding, it had been a very encouraging start from Arsenal. Yes, they were reliant on the well-known strength of Song and Walcott was starting to impress, but the youngsters were playing full roles.
The England international may have gone clear on a couple of occasions but the bounce went against him. His Cameroonian counterpart also drove a shot high from range just past the half-hour.
But as the interval approached, Olympiacos grew in influence. Just before the whistle, a well-worked move saw Giorgos Galitsios freed down the left flank. His deep cross was met by the flying Raul Bravo. The former Leeds midfielder never had the effort under control and it went well over.
It had been 45 minutes of hard work but the Arsenal side could be proud of what they had achieved.
However the harshest of lessons was meted out within 90 seconds of the restart.
Bartley dispossessed Gonzalez effectively enough in midfield but the interception fell kindly for the onrushing Leonardo. The Brazilian sprinted clear of Gilbert and tucked his shot under Fabianski.
It was the goal Wenger must have feared having got to half-time relatively comfortably. But perversely, Arsenal should have equalised three minutes later, Ramsey broke clear on the left and, despite two pursuers, managed to square the ball to the unmarked Vela. His shot had power but was straight at Nikopolidis.
As the hour-mark passed and went, Arsenal looked a little tired. But they were still creating chances and Ramsey was at the hub of most of them. The Welshman was in an eye-catching mood tonight.
Midway through the half he curled a gorgeous ball into the path of Walcott but the striker was muscled off by Bravo. From the resulting corner, Ramsey saw his header saved.
In the 70th minute, Merida's slide-rule pass gave Vela a glimpse of goal. Unfortunately for Arsenal, he prodded the ball over the bar. A golden opportunity.
The game was now becoming more and more open. Fabianski clawed down a shot from Leonardo and, with 14 minutes left, Mitroglou's shot beat the Polish keeper but drifted wide.
However it was Arsenal who might have stolen a point with a minute left. Merida's low right-wing corner meandered through to Ramsey at the far post and the Welshman's effort was booted off the line by Leonardo.
There would be no fairy-tale ending tonight.
- Silvestre (C)
- Merida Yellow Card
- Wilshere 77
- Sunu 77
- Nikopolidis (C)
- Leonardo Goal!
- Dudu 86
- Gonzalez 90
- Domi 86
- Pantos 90 Yellow Card